Spotsylvania County: An Overhang of 28,000 By-Right Lots

We see the same problem replicated in county after county across Virginia: an overhang of thousands of lots that can be developed by right. Typically, these lots are located on off-the-beaten track farmland that will be inefficient and expensive to serve with the utilities, public services and other amenities that urban refugees demand. By definition, property with by-right development rights can be developed without obtaining approval from local government. Lacking any leverage, local boards are powerless to negotiate proffers to offset the cost of upgrading roads, utilities and services.

Spotsylvania County, on the growth fast track, is wrestling with that very issue. According to Dan Telvock with the Free Lance-Star, county guidelines allow for 28,512 by-right homes over 25 years. With proffers per home averaging more than $35,295, that’s $1 billion in revenue the county will never receive, argues Mike Jones, a principal with Tricord, a major home builder in the region.

Ironically, county proffers of that magnitude will encourage the wrong kind of growth. Home builders developing by-right properties will enjoy a huge price advantage — $35,000 — over those developing properties subject to proffers. All other things being equal, the by-right lots will be developed and sold sooner, the lots linked to proffers will be developed later. Here’s the real kick in the groin for taxpayers: The by-right lots tend to be more scattered and more remote than the lots with proffers, which tend to be clustered together, higher density and located closer to transportation arteries. Thus, the lots that yield the least in county revenues also will cost the most to serve.

What’s a county to do?

I don’t know the particulars of Spotsylvania County, so any comments I make are wary and tentative. However, I would suggest that The Comprehensive Transportation Funding and Reform Act of 2007 might reverse the perverse logic of the status quo. Spotsylvania will be required to designate an Urban Development Area comprising enough land to accommodate growth for the next 20 years. Presumably, the county will see the logic of concentrating its capital improvements within the UDA. Landowners outside the region will be served notice that they’re largely on their own. Indeed, landowners who develop their land outside the UDA may be subject to impact fees.

If Spotsylvania follows the spirit of the Reform Act, it also will permit greater densities within the UDA and encourage developers to follow “new urbanism” design principles that utilize infrastructure more efficiently and create environments that encourage people to walk, bicycle and use transit.

A critical key to success is drawing the proper boundaries for the UDA. There may be a temptation to simply wrap the UDA around existing arterial roads and other infrastructure. But the matter needs to be given thought. Drawing UDA boundaries gives fast-growth counties across Virginia an opportunity to create what Ed Risse calls balanced communities, places where there is a balance of housing, jobs and amenities and a transportation system designed to serve it.

Spotsylvania suffers from an inherent disadvantage in creating balanced communities: A large percentage of its workforce hops in cars and drives north on Interstate-95 every day. Many of its jobs are located in Prince William, Fairfax, Alexandria or Arlington. Furthermore, in all likelihood, any balanced community in the Fredericksburg region would incorporate the City of Fredericksburg and chunks of Stafford County. But, with an influx of 250,000 people expected in the region over the next two decades, Spotsylvania has the potential to evolve into a balanced community itself. The time to start planning that evolution is now.

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22 responses to “Spotsylvania County: An Overhang of 28,000 By-Right Lots”

  1. Anonymous Avatar

    Ironically, Spotsylvania is much more ahead of the curve than it was 10 or 20 years ago. The problem of by-right development became readily apparent in the early 1980’s when the City of Fredericksburg annexed what is now Central Park (the #1 revenue engine for the City today).

    Fear of losing Spotsylvania Mall drove the BOS then and subsequent boards after to start looking at the county’s infrastructure and ways of developing and controlling that future growth.

    Gary Jackson was one of the pioneers by forcing the Comprehensive Plan to accomodate no more than a 2% increase in population per year. Womble was an early influence as well as now-Delegate Mark Cole.

    Here’s another irony — low growth and low tax groups have found a great deal of common ground, mostly because of the leadership of the current and previous BOS. Transportation proffers are now focused in critical areas (Massaponax for one) while commercial development is sticking to the Rt. 1 corridor.

    It is certainly a tightrope, and there have been only a handful that have been able to walk the line. Current and former Spotsy Supervisors Chris Yakabouski, Gary Jackson, Jerry Logan, Vince Onorato, Mark Cole, Bob Hagan, Rick Womble, and others have been able to walk that line and carry the ball forward from the Cosner era of approving every development brought to the board.

    Add to it the fact that Spotsylvania’s taxes are lower than our neighbors to the north in Stafford County, and you have the makings of a success story. It’s still in the works, but Spotsylvania County could very well be the front line of good ideas in tackling growth, sprawl, taxes, and quality of life issues.

    (sorry for the anonymous posting, but you know how that goes)

  2. Larry Gross Avatar
    Larry Gross

    What is the ADVANTAGE to Spotsylvania and its existing residents to designate higher-density UDAs?

    I agree with anon 11:30 with regard to better, more due dilgence with regard to managing growth. MUCH BETTER!

    The previous BOS was a disaster.

    Their ideas:

    1. – more rooftops is “good”,

    2. – construction jobs for more rooftops was a benefit to those in the county who needed a job.,

    3. more rooftops would bring commercial growth which then would offset personal property taxes with sales tax revenues – forgetting of course that the same country residents pay sales taxes also.

    4. Roads were VDOT’s concern not the county. Approve rooftops anywhere and everwhere at whatever rate of growth the market will generate.. and blame VDOT for the congestion.

    So the current BOS has made enormous strides in understanding and actually dealing with growth – but we’re one election away from returning to disaster…. because the average citizen is .. a NoVa commuter who does not even get the local paper – and really came to Spotsy for the simple reason that they could get an “affordable” home here – not because the county was, in their eyes, anything particularily special.

    Jim B is right about the “by-right” but the county can handle the by-right, especially now with road impact fees.

    Most BIG homebuilders don’t like to mess with – per single lot construction – they want large parcels especially those with water/sewer.

    But back to the first point.

    What is the advantage to Spotsylvania to approve higher density projects?

    What are the benefits?

    Will county citizens have their taxes reduced?

    Will county citizens have less congestion of their roads?

    Will they have a better quality of life?

    Bonus Question:

    Are NoVa commuters who live in Spotsylvania a net Benefit to the county? This is a serious question because, in general, they buy expensive enough houses with proffers plus higher property tax valuations such that these folks actually do pay the freight for the school system which is 60-70% of the total county budget.

    Should we encourage even more commuters to NoVa to move into the county?

    Bonus Question 2 – what happens to Spotsy residents who commute to NoVA if/when HOT lanes go online an cost $30-40 a day?

    MUCH of the dialogue in this BLOG with respect to growth and development is, in fact, embodied in many of the issues that Spotsylvania is confronting – as an outlying jurisdiction to NoVa in my view and I’m proud to say that yes, we have an excellent BOS that… really has done good…


  3. Larry Gross Avatar
    Larry Gross

    I continue to be intriqued by the concept balanced communities especially with regard to Washington DC being the center of government and to my way of thinking a core reason why NoVa and the Metro DC area are such a tremendous economic engine.

    Ask yourself what it would take for Spotsylvania to become a balanced community in THIS CONTEXT.

    Would Spotsylvania become balanced if the Feds moved.. say DOD to the Fredericksburg Area?

    How about the Department of Interior or the Department of Energy?

    Can anyone forsee ANY major cabinet-level Agency moving their headquarters and/or major functions now located in the Metro DC area to outlying suburbs – like Spotsylvania or is it more likely that they’ll stay in Wash Metro and their workers will continue to commute to Spotsylvania?

    The answer to this question is very important …. for a number of reasons that have to do with what exactly Spotsylvania, a counties like it should be planning for in the future?

    You don’t build a road in 2 years, it takes 5-10 that that is with money in hand.

    What kind of transportation infrastructure should Spotsylvania be planning to build in the next 5-10 years AND how would they fund it?

    Rodger Provo (of Fredericksburg) often posts that the traffic in the Fredericksburg Area is awful (and it can be, I agree) and that “something” needs to be done.

    Well the Fredericksburg Area has an MPO and just like the Wash Metro MPO one of it’s major jobs is to approve a regional 6 year plan AND…a Regional 25-30 year plan.

    So the answer with respect to what the Feds might or might not do with their jobs.. has a direct and overwhelming influence on road planning in the Fredericksburg Area.

    Is the answer so simple as to believe that 2 more congestion-priced TOLL lanes on I-95 is the answer?

    Is the right answer a second rail corridor for VRE?

    Is there any thought at all that in 20 years that the Fed presence in Washington will decrease and/or they will move to decentralize their operations to places like Spotsylvania?

    These are the types of questions that I feel those engaged in planning and policy needs to try to find answers to and/or at least understand what the trends are probably likely to be…

  4. Anonymous Avatar

    For the record, anonymous 11:40 also thinks that Rodger Provo’s ideas on growth, taxes, and sprawl are way off the chart. Nice fella, but does not contribute much other than polemic for Republicans — which is rather harmful because it’s a unique coalition between low growth and low tax Republicans that are driving the machine in Spotsylvania (and to some extent, Prince William and Loudoun as well).

    In Spotsy, I’m more of a fan of the Hagan/Yakabouski approach (even though there is a bit of bad blood between the two, they largely share the same goals).

    What is interesting to note in Spotsylvania is that the low-tax conservatives (Cole, Kenney, Moulton) and the smart growth wing (Womble, Hagan, Yak) managed to forge somewhat of a “winning coalition” in Spotsylvania where Republicans are still dominating the county both demographically and poltically — School Board aside. I don’t know who reached out to whom from either side, but kudos to them for doing it from sides that traditionally were at war for nearly a decade in Spotsy.

    Prince William is another Northern Virginia community that you could point towards as a Republican-oriented approach to growth where the Democrats have largely taken to becoming backbenchers (or blamed entirely for the poor decision making of the 60s and 70s).

    So while the Cosner era has passed in Spotsy, one could very well make the argument that a perfect tension between low growth and low tax Republicans have ultimately led the way in fixing the imbalance in Spotsylvania. Oriented more towards business than their erstwhile Democratic friends, they can drive the machine towards better growth pattens while preserving quality of life issues (low property taxes being among them).

    Apart from some of the very unique problems that Spotsylvania must face (e.g. battlefields), there is also the additional problem of the Rapahannock River watershed, both in terms of runoff and river crossings. Unless the Western Transportation Corridor is ever revived, relieving congestion along I-95 isn’t going to be as easy as building Lexus Lanes across the river… nor will it do much to preserve the battlefields in the area either.

    The next immediate major hurdle Spotsylvania will have to overcome is Lake Anna — how do you deal with a development that is a tourist community as opposed to a bedroom community? Water and sewer lines will have to be laid out, roads improved, an infrastructure to support that growth (yes – strip malls) will have to be encouraged… the next hurdle in Spotsylvania is going to be one heck of a jump!

  5. Larry Gross Avatar
    Larry Gross

    There’s a major fly in the water/sewer plans ointment called TMDLs.

    Just as the EPA established air pollution caps for major urban areas like Wash Metro…

    DEQ in Va responding by prodding from the same EPA has developed, in essence, pollution “budgets” for the watersheds including the Rappahannock and the North Anna (as well as other major basins).

    The long and short of it is that these “caps” are absolute as opposed to standards for each plant.

    You cannot add additional plants and increase your cap allowance.

    The TMDL caps are right at the limit of technology.

    Without a change in the regs and/or new technologies – it imposes a de-facto build-out cap on each basin.

    I’m not sure how DEQ went about allocating shares to jursidictions but I note that Culper county apparently has an allocation that Culpeper City would like to have.

    So .. I’m not sure about the who/what/when/where/how of water/sewer for Lake Anna except to note that I don’t believe that county taxpayers are going to agree to pay for it and that means the folks around Lake Anna will have that job – and last I heard – DEQ would not grant them a permit for the North Anna – in part – because Dominion Power has first dibs for cooling water and I believe they only have to release about 40 cfs which is about the volume of a small creek.

    Ditto with Western Transportation Corridor and all southern variants of it.

    If ANY of that “works” it will have to be a TOLL road and we’re talking about new corridors vice tacking on extra lanes to existing corridors.

    Remember the discussion about 25-30 year MPO CLRPs and what the “constrained” part of CLRP means? (identified funding).

    Where are these road ideas with respect to Washington Metro MPO and Fredericksburg Area MPOs?

  6. Groveton Avatar

    Larry Gross asks a great question:

    “Can anyone forsee ANY major cabinet-level Agency moving their headquarters and/or major functions now located in the Metro DC area to outlying suburbs – like Spotsylvania or is it more likely that they’ll stay in Wash Metro and their workers will continue to commute to Spotsylvania?”.

    Yes. At least to the “major functions” part of the question.

    Several reasons:

    1. As the cost of energy drives ever higher so does the cost of commuting. I can pay less to people who commute less.

    2. The technology of collaboration is moving forward with fantastic speed. Businesses which once required 100% co-location of employees no longer require that co-location. Businesses move employees to India. Government agencies move them out of DC.

    3. The government will be forced to provide leadership in energy efficiency as the politicians realize the full impact of developing countries using more energy and global warming being a problem.

    4. Many sensitive facilities in the city of Washington cannot be adequately protected from car bombs and IEDs. There needs to be a buffer zone for this defense and there is no room in DC for all these buffer zones.

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  8. Ray Hyde Avatar

    Larry brings up a good point. If EPA will allow no new roads in NOVA, and no new effluent in the NOVA watersheds, then something is going to have to give.

    Wouldn’t it be ironic if EPA regulations become a major engine to promote sprawl?

  9. Ray Hyde Avatar

    It is going to be interesting to see what happens to Spotsylvania property values if HOT lanes and congestion pricing come into effect. After that, it will be interesting to see what happens to tax rates, and actual taxes paid.

    My guess is that the increased cost of commuting will be nearly exactly offset by lower costs of living.

  10. Larry Gross Avatar
    Larry Gross

    I don’t think the HOT lane toll will change much in terms of overall numbers of folks moving to Spotsy to commute to NoVa jobs because that amount of money, while not chump change, is doeable for most.

    But, here’s the problem.

    NoVa got a Regional Transportation Authority with the ability to collect new revenues to improve their transportation network.

    Spotsy and the Fredericksburg Area – the one with all of those NoVa commuters on their local roads (that Rodger says is awful) got …. ZIP.

    I have not doubt at all that local elected in the Fredericksburg Area have already talked to their GA reps to give the Fredericksburg Area MPO the same deal that NVTA got.

    In the interim, I’d ask what would be wrong with increasing the proffers on new homes the exact amount that is needed to upgrade our own regional transportation network to acommodate all of these increased NoVa commuters?

    In fact, some of the biggiest complainers in the Fredericksburg area with respect to our woefully inadequate surface roads (never designed to handle all these commuters) …. is .. guess what – the new commuting residents themselves!

    Yes.. they move down here .. overwhelm our schools and roads and then bitch about the awful congestion, crowded schools…oh.. and not the least of .. their “hellish” daily commute up I-95 to their NoVa jobs.

    I’d ask .. what would be wrong with tacking on whatever if needed in the way of additional proffers – to pay for these roads ???

    If it’s another 20K per home – so be it. Those homes still would not be as expensive as an equivalent one in NoVa.

  11. Groveton Avatar

    250,000 additional people / 3 people per home = about 85,000 new homes.

    85,000 * $20,000 per home = $1,700,000,000.

    $1.7B in one time fees over the next 20 years or, on average, $85,000,000 per year.

    Will that do it?

  12. Groveton Avatar

    Also – FYI –

    I hear this all the time, “…those NoVA people …”.

    I was born in a hospital in DC at a time when my parents lived in an apartment in Arlington.

    I am a NoVA person.

    However, the vast majority of my neighbors were born elsewhere and moved here. From my street there are people from Africa, Italy, New York, Cincinatti, Iran, Texas, Conn. and Chicago.

    As far as I know I am the only “…NoVA person…” who lives on the street.

    As these people move from my neighborhood to yours just remember that they weren’t in my county when I was growing up any more than they were in your county when you were growing up. Once they get there – how long until I can start complaining about them by calling them “Spotsy people”?

    In my opinion, the ones from Cleveland are the most irritating. They never stop talking about how screwed up everything is in Virginia and how great everything is back in Cleveland. When you ask them why they don’t just move back to Cleveland they stare at you like you are speaking Swahili. These will be the first people I tell of the wonder of Spottsylvamia County and its magnificent BOS 🙂

  13. Larry Gross Avatar
    Larry Gross

    re: “$1.7B in one time fees over the next 20 years or, on average, $85,000,000 per year.

    Will that do it?”

    If they don’t squander it – yes.

    It would need to be spent intelligently on specific bottlenecks and connecting roads and expansion of other existing roads rather than on mega infrastructure.

  14. Larry Gross Avatar
    Larry Gross

    re: Nova folks vs Spotsy folks vs “come heres”, et al.

    Long-time Spotsy residents do not complain nearly so much as newcomers with respect to infrastructure and services such as schools, EMS, law enforcement, libraries, roads and congestion.

    Nor do they complain for the most part about the huge influx of new folks – who complain.. that Spotsy is “not like” where they came from and has LESS services.

    A good example is that Spotsy folks lived for decades without a 24hr 9-11 countwide service and what service they did have was provided by neighbors who took turns volunteering… and they had bake sales to buy equipment and supplies and … everyone bought to help keep those guys running that equipment.

    Newcomers come in.. and say HOLY MOLY… what am I going to do if I have to be taken to the hospital?

    Note.. they EXPECT someone to provide such a service…

    Another difference between newcomers and “come heres” is that new folks actually get up in front of hearings – and advocate for higher taxes for more services whereas the folks who have lived here for a while .. simply don’t make the salaries (since they work local) that they have “extra”… they just make do.

    Existing Spotsy residents did not ask for the growth.. all the new folks .. all the strains on their infrastructrue… higher taxes to pay for services/infrastructure, crowded roads and schools…

    they sucked it all up… until they hear the “complaints”… oh.. and the rude driving behaviors.. also.

    running red lights?

    unheard of .. there was no reason… before…. when we had 15,000 folks and one high school…

    I’m mostly kidding here.. but you might get the drift…


  15. Groveton Avatar


    I feel for you brother.

    Hopefully, you guys won’t screw this up as badly as Fairfax County did. All we can do is look at Arlington County and realize that recovery is possible.

    Thanks for taking some of these people off of our hands.

    Serves you right for living in a county named after the guy who killed Blackbeard.

    “Death to Spotswood” as some of the boys in NC say just before draining a shot.

  16. Larry Gross Avatar
    Larry Gross

    I love it when I talk to call center folks…

    they say … Spotsy…. what?

    then I say “Just like Pennsyl.. but Spotsy.. ”

    and they say “huh”?

    then I spell it … S P O T S Y…

    there’s a county in NC called Transylvania….

    sylvania… by the way .. means woods

  17. Jim Bacon Avatar
    Jim Bacon

    I always wondered how they got from “Spottswood” to “Spottsylvania” — now I know!

  18. Ray Hyde Avatar

    “The problem of by-right development ….”

    Since when did rights become a problem? Especially sisnce most of them are merely the thin remainders of rights that were previously stolen without recompense.

    What do you call a right when you have to pay to exercise it?

  19. Groveton Avatar

    What do you call a right when you have to pay to exercise it?

    A taxable right?

  20. Anonymous Avatar

    my goodness. Larry Gross’ comment about the newcomers to spotsy demanding services, like, gee, being taken the freakin’ hospital…. gimme a break. you make it sound like these new folks came stomping into mayberry and demanded andy and barney be fired.

    and you have no clue what the longtime residents of spotsy think about congestion, et al, or how much they complain. no clue. living there a long time doesn’t make you omniscient.

    i suspect they are like others. don’t like bad traffic. hope their taxes won’t go up.

    good grief. you all entertain yourselves by drawing as many lines and distinctions as you can come up with.

  21. Larry Gross Avatar
    Larry Gross

    re: “my goodness. Larry Gross’ comment about the newcomers to spotsy demanding services”

    My personal approach these days is to always try to understand what those on both sides are saying and to put it into some kind of a context that rings true.

    And the truth is that the same folks who came.. in huge numbers and overwhelmed the County’s infrastructure and services are, among the biggest complainers about the loss of quality-of-life and ironically “sprawl” and the lost of rural open space…

    Those same folks show up in numbers at the hearings to decry the lack of “growth management” .. oops the very reason they were able to buy their “affordable” home here – that the exisiting workers could never afford anyhow because they work local, instead of commuting to NoVa.

    These are the folks that live on the rural land that the newcomers value as “rural character” that should not be messed up with new subdivisions for more “newcomers”.

    If we want to deal .. honestly.. with growth and development.. sprawl and land conservation.. we need to be honest with ourselves and recognize where the problems come from… to start with.

    This is not blame. This is simply acknowledging each … of our own.. contribution.. to .. the issues we all say are important to us.

  22. Larry Gross Avatar
    Larry Gross

    re: “…living there a long time doesn’t make you omniscient.”

    correct and acknowledged.

    but listening to the views of who HAVE lived here a while is important for both understanding – and advocacies

    .. and a quibble.. I don’t think I’ve ever seen long-time residents show up at hearings and advocate FOR tax increases… like I’ve seen some newcomers do .. but I could be wrong..

    and a comment –

    “Smart Growth” in Spotsylvania – where close to 40% are long-distance commuters to NoVa is a concept that needs some further context and understanding and a level of honesty in my view.

    Folks who drive solo 100 miles a day in SUVs during the day and then turn around and advocate “smart growth” and limiting the land-use rights of existing long-time non-commuting residents as a solution to sprawl at public gatherings … have, in my view, a credibility issue to deal with.

    Again – not blame – but each of us facing up to certain truths – that I feel must be part and parcel of who we are .. if we are to advocate changes…..

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